Replete with electric guitar solos and resolute calls for political and social equity, “Social Justice Disco” was officially released on Sunday to a local audience in Millvale.
The album, produced by local songwriters Phat Man Dee and Liz Berlin, features a wide range of songs, from original tunes to popular covers. The one constant throughout, though, is the artists’ belief that the nation continues to grapple with long-standing prejudices and stands unable to address them as long as its current leadership remains in office.
The album showcases numerous Pittsburgh artists, including guitarist and songwriter Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, a Pittsburgh-based group known for its outspoken political activism on behalf of left-wing causes.
Even before the release of their most recent album, Dee and Berlin had made their marks on the Pittsburgh music scene. Dee, who has been performing since 1996, was voted Best Jazz Performer in the Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2016 Readers’ Poll. Berlin co-founded Rusted Root in 1990, a band formed in Pittsburgh but that achieved national notoriety, perhaps best known for its popular hit, “Send Me On My Way.”
Here are a few of the tracks from the duo’s new album:
‘Ball of Confusion’
Despite borrowing a song title, a melody, and many lyrics from the Temptations’ 1970 classic, Dee and Berlin carve their own path, with unique verses, electric guitar solos and a more energetic, lively style.
Unlike the Temptations’ slower, instrument-light hit, this rendition recalls a hard rock style taken straight from the 1980s. One key similarity, though, is in the makeup of the cast: Local trombonist Reggie Watkins recorded “Ball of Confusion” with the Temptations in 1970 and also plays the trombone part in “Social Justice Disco.”
A notable addition to the original lyrics reflects the left-leaning perspective of the album as a whole. While the Temptations criticized politicians who claim “more taxes will solve ev’rything,” Dee and Berlin go after politicians who say “no regulation” is a cure for all of the nation’s ills.
Inspired by the police shooting of Philando Castile and Facebook’s subsequent decision to pull a video of the shooting off of its platform, this number has the trappings of a fight song, calling on listeners to “resist,” while at the same time warning of a “1984”-style government.
The song, composed by Dee and Berlin, also features spoken verses, brass solos and a catchy melody.
Dee and Berlin don’t mince words in this dark, demoralizing hymn, lamenting the unjust treatment of African Americans by police and the criminal justice system at large.
Highlighting the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia man executed for a murder many believe he did not commit, the duo confront what they see as excessive force used by police at the expense of law-abiding African Americans.
In the process of arguing their case, Dee and Berlin ask: “How is this God’s plan?” Similar to other references to God throughout the album, they appear to be trying to reclaim the mantle of religious sanctity from those who they deem to be corrupting it and using religion for political gains.
‘I Can’t Breathe’
Adopting the refrain of protesters around the country, this song is an adapted version of one by a group called The Peace Poets.
The phrase refers to the events surrounding the death of Eric Garner in 2014 at the hands of New York City policemen, who put him in a headlock on the sidewalk as he repeated “I can’t breathe” multiple times.
The song takes on the aura of spoken word poetry, with a soft choir in the background overshadowed by the poet’s voice.
Original lyrics by local poets Christian Springer and Leslie Ezra Smith are sprinkled throughout the song, with Pastor Deryck Tines of The Lemington Gospel Choir featured as well.
‘Fourth Reich Arising’
Another gloomy, dispiriting original work from Dee and Berlin takes aim at what they view as dangerous figures from within. According to Dee, the song was inspired by the rise of President Donald Trump and those who flocked to his campaign.
The song blames the rise of what they call the “Fourth Reich” on the ignorance and obedience of the “masses.” Though pessimistic, the song is at the same time rousing, punctuated by spirited verses calling for action and an extended guitar solo. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at email@example.com.